September 7, 2004
Western conservationists back Indochina’s largest, most environmentally destructive hydro scheme.
Wildlife funding linked to dam revenue
This week in Washington, the World Bank will be showcasing plans for a French-led hydro venture in Laos that, if built, would flood critical habitat for globally threatened wildlife, including the Asian elephant, barking deer, and large-antlered muntjac.
The developers’ rationale for building the US$1.1 billion Nam Theun 2 dam, Indochina’s largest, is straightforward. By selling the dam’s output to Thailand, the developers – led by Electricite de France – expect to generate almost US$6 billion in guaranteed revenue for their shareholders. They also expect subsidies from the World Bank and other donor agencies to offset the dam’s social and environmental liabilities, particularly the cost of livelihood damages downstream. For the Nam Theun 2 developers, there is no downside.
What is far less defensible is the promotion Nam Theun 2 has received from Western conservationists, including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and Switzerland’s International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Like the dam builders, WCS and IUCN scientists see Nam Theun 2 as a source of revenue – for wildlife research and management of the dam’s 4200-square kilometre watershed as a national park.
WCS and IUCN scientists are well aware Nam Theun 2 would obliterate wildlife on the Nakai Plateau, the heart of the Theun watershed. As the developers’ watershed management plan predicts, “When the reservoir fills, wildlife will be drowned, displaced or stranded on the islands formed.” The experts know animal rescue programs don’t work. They know once the Plateau’s special mix of grasslands and wetlands are flooded, it cannot be recovered. And they know that once the watershed is opened up to four thousand dam construction workers and their families, and becomes accessible by road, loggers (illegal or otherwise) and poachers won’t be far behind.
But the dam’s impacts on wildlife doesn’t concern the pro-dam conservationists. Instead, they’ve set their sights on the area around the dam’s reservoir. With help from the World Bank, they’ve worked out a deal with the Nam Theun 2 Power Company: a budget of more than US$30 million over 25 years. Most of that money will be used to hire Western conservation advisors and provide them with the equipment and staff they need to study wildlife while restricting local use of the watershed.
According to the concession agreement signed by the power company and the Lao government, there’ll be money for four-wheel drive vehicles, bots and boat drivers, cooks and mechanics, air-conditioned offices, satellite TV, computers, ranger stations, radio towers and, for field work, everything from binoculars to solar-powered refrigerators.
“It’s all about money,” as Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, the former Asia Director for WCS, once wrote, money “to train people, hire staff, for vehicles, buildings, for all kinds of things which do not exist in that area one bit right now.”
The 5,800 indigenous people living inside the new Nakai-Nam Theun park boundaries won’t fare nearly as well. First, the Lao government doesn’t recognize their property rights and blames them for deforestation rather than the military-backed logging operations in the area. Second, only about one percent of the park budget will go to so-called livelihood improvement schemes for park residents, none of which come with any guarantee that money spent equals local benefits.
The developers say forest-dependent communities will be compensated “according to their losses.” They will face restrictions on farming and collection of forest products inside the park yet the company has no detailed plan or budget for compensation, despite ten years of project preparation. What this and the government’s failure to grant its citizens proper land rights suggests is that fair compensation and a chance at prosperity could be a long time coming.
Meanwhile, Western conservationists and dam builders are allied out of self-interest: both covet the Nakai-Nam Theun watershed for their own interests. And they share the conceit that Laotians are incapable of saving their own forests and wildlife, not without plenty of Western aid and conservationists. They conveniently overlook the fact that indigenous people have been part of the Nakai-Nam Theun ecosystem for centuries, and have the knowledge to live in and prosper from the forest without destroying it.
If Western conservationists really want to save Laotian wildlife, they would champion the rights of indigenous people as the rightful owners and guardians of Laotian forests and wildlife. Instead, they’ve struck an illegitimate bargain with those who would destroy it.
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